The spell of continuous rain we experienced in late March reminds me that every decade or so since about 1960, there has been enough sustained rainfall in the West Windsor-Plainsboro area to cause local flooding, sometimes to the extent that roads have had to be closed until the water subsided. Since 1957, this has happened about five times. The most extensive flooding in recent times occurred in the fall of 1999 when the remains of Hurricane Floyd hit the area. During Sandy in 2012, local flooding was relatively minor. The winds were the worst part of that storm in this area.
But in 1999, roads at seven locations in the area had to be closed, some for as long as two days. The main culprits were Little Bear Brook, Big Bear Brook, Cranbury Brook, and the Millstone River. All of these backed up due to downstream blockages that caused them to overflow and bury adjacent roads in water more than three feet deep.
The main blockage was of the Millstone River where it passes under the Delaware and Raritan Canal at the aqueduct. The aqueduct at that point was built more than 150 years ago when most of the surrounding area was farmland, and heavy rains simply soaked into the soil; there was little run-off due to paved roads and driveways. The streams rose hardly at all. But during Floyd the water rose to the top of the aqueduct and mixed with the water in the canal, which also overflowed.
Another restriction that has sometimes caused backups is the place on the railroad main line where the Millstone River passes under the tracks. Again, it’s a question of what the conditions were when that concrete structure was built. The opening under the tracks is so small that virtually any increase in the flow causes the water to rise on the upstream side. Whether or not flooding results is a matter of how much rain falls and for how long.
But the most dramatic example of flooding in my memory occurred in 1971, when the rainfall from what was called Tropical Storm Doria was so severe that a portion of the New Jersey Turnpike was nearly blocked by water. Yes, at a low point in the roadway near Elizabeth, the water rose to the point that all vehicles, including large trucks, began to be flooded and had to leave the road where possible. Some were trapped and had to stay in the water until it subsided. Vehicles ran out of gas, and families had to endure sitting in the water, literally, for hours — which coincided with overnight.
My own experience with that occasion had two features, one because I had driven to New York City earlier that day to buy a new bicycle for my teenage daughter, and the other because of a very funny (to me) episode the next day on Washington Road near Princeton Junction. Going to New York to pick up the bicycle was a calculated risk, but the rain at the time we started out was rather modest, and there was hope that it would stop soon. In fact it slacked off as we got to our destination in downtown Manhattan and picked up the bike. But then it started again as we began the trip home.
As we were approaching Elizabeth on the NJ Turnpike it was clear that traffic had nearly stopped due to flooding of the road ahead, and we decided to get off the turnpike at the Elizabeth exit and get on Route 1. We also decided to stop for gas and use the facilities, for which there were long lines. At least the traffic was moving, but slowly, and some key roads were closed by then.
Finally, it took us more than eight hours to get home from New York. Without a cell phone, there was no way to let my wife know why we were so late. At least nobody called her about an accident.
The next morning — Saturday — I decided to go over to my office on Washington Road — in the building now occupied by Congressman Rush Holt — to see how our grounds and the building itself had weathered the storm. It had stopped raining and the sun was almost out. As I got to the railroad bridge on the Princeton Junction side, a NJ State Police car was stationed there to keep traffic from going over the bridge. The troopers said the road on the other side was flooded and no one could proceed further. When I told them where I worked, however, they let me go over the bridge.
What I found on the other side was amazing. Little Bear Brook, where it now goes past the Princeton Tennis building, had overflowed to the point that the water was at least two feet deep over the road for a distance of several hundred yards, leaving just enough dry roadway to allow me to enter my driveway. There, I found a colleague who had also decided to check things out. We walked down to the edge of the water and began chatting with another state trooper who was parked near the water’s edge. (West Windsor had a very small police force then, so the NJ State Police helped cover the area.)
Traffic coming from Princeton and the Penns Neck circle was also being stopped before entering the flooded area on the other side by a trooper in another police car. But we noticed in the distance that one car had not stopped and was still coming toward us, now with water up to its hubcaps.
It continued on, ignoring the trooper’s orders to stop, and the water got deeper and deeper. Finally, as the car was only a short distance away — he had made it through the deepest water — the engine stopped, and we could see that it was a very fancy convertible — a Cadillac, I believe — with the top down. In the driver’s seat was a very determined gentleman dressed up for a party — after all, it was late Saturday morning.
It was evident that he had had a few, and, as the car would no longer move he kept saying, “I have to pick up Marjorie at the station, I have to pick up Marjorie at the station.” We could see that by now he was sitting in about two feet of water inside the car.
The trooper came over to the car and said, “Please step out of the vehicle, sir.” And the man said, “I have to pick up Marjorie at the station.” Finally, the trooper opened the door and the water came pouring out along with the driver. “Come with me, sir,” said the trooper as they went to the trooper’s cruiser where, we assumed, some legal paperwork was taken care of.
It was one of those events you never forget, and under the most amazing circumstances. We never found out if anyone picked up Marjorie. She probably took a cab — if there were any available — by way of Lawrenceville. Who knows if her gentleman friend made it back to the party. I’m sure his car had to be towed. He and the car were still there when I went home. I had no desire to volunteer my assistance. What he needed then was a good lawyer.
It should be noted here that the portion of Washington Road that flooded during that 1971 storm has been modified a bit since then, and the streamway of Little Bear Brook has also been changed, so similar flooding events there are less likely now. Thankfully, this year’s March rains were not that bad.